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Pee-powered vehicles are finally making a splash

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A future of cars powered by electric batteries is inevitable. But what about trucks, ships and airplanes? Hydrogen? Possibly.

But there’s another chemical that can be used — and it’s abundant in your pee.

What is ammonia and why is it used to power vehicles?

Ammonia is a combination of hydrogen and nitrogen (NH3) and is one of the few liquid chemical compounds. It releases energy quickly when burned and has a high energy density per volume.

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It also brings significant environmental benefits. No carbon (C) in NH3 means that ammonia cannot release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or other greenhouse gases when burned.

How does ammonia compare to other energy sources?

While electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are attractive, ammonia offers a higher energy density. This is especially important for transportation that is heavily constrained by weight and volume, such as heavy ground and air transportation.

In addition, compared to vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells, ammonia-powered vehicles are lighter and avoid the disposal problem associated with lithium-ion batteries.

The other benefit of ammonia is that the chemical has been used industrially for over a century.

Therefore, a worldwide storage, transshipment and delivery infrastructure is already in place, making ammonia an optimal fuel for long-haul freight transport, locomotives, aviation and shipping.

Wait a minute, ammonia, aren’t you talking about peeing?

Yes, in fact, urine turns into ammonia, which can then be used to produce energy. Until now, however, it has been strictly academic.

2009 Research by dr. Gerardine Botte showed how electrolysis can make hydrogen from human urine at a much lower cost than hydrogen from water.

In 2017, British researchers at the University of West England developed Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), electrical circuits powered by microbes such as bacteria that feed on urine, giving robots the ability to refuel themselves.

They have since expanded the cells to… power household appliances

Researchers at the US Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen Proving Ground are also looking at how they could use urine to power devices in remote locations, as well as large-scale fuel cells that power vehicles and – in theory – even entire bases.

If you fancy a bit of citizen science, there are videos about converting urine into garden fertilizer, and even microbial fuel cells

While scientists are on board, we have yet to see the full adoption of ammonia in energy production.

Why haven’t we seen wider adoption of ammonia?

Due to a lack of technology capable of efficiently extracting ammonia in a limited space, it has been underexposed as an energy carrier.

But now, technological advancements are bolstering its viability in larger scale capabilities.

Research and industry make ammonia power a reality